I bought and played Demon’s Souls the day it came out. I thought the game looked so cool when I saw it on G4, so I had to have it. But then I played it and died, again and again in a repetitive cycle that made me put the game back in the case, never to be opened again. That’s where I learned that the souls-like genre of games wasn’t for me. Since then, it’s taken over the industry in its iron grasp of masochism. I’ve been hesitant to ever pick one up again because I found no enjoyment out of having to start all over again anytime I made a mistake. My definition of a souls-like is a game with extreme difficulty and an unbearable learning curve that punishes death by throwing you back to the start of the game.
When I saw the first trailer of Sifu from developer Sloclap, I was enamored. My brother and I had spent a lot of time playing their previous title Absolver, another game where you would learn and master fighting styles to take down opponents. Sifu looked like the evolution of that. Sifu is a beautiful game about your character getting revenge after watching their father’s murder at a young age. Eight years after his death, your character heads out to get their revenge.
For clarity and full transparency, I’m a white man, so I will not comment on the authenticity of the culture in the game or anything of the sort. I highly suggest checking out reviews from reviewers of Chinese descent and BIPOC reviewers who can give insight into how the game handles such topics.
I’m not sure if most would describe the game as souls-like, but I would. It’s a lot more fast-paced and action-packed than most other games in the genre, though. Combat is snappy as you take on multiple opponents at once. As multiple opponents rush towards you, your combat is fluid as you switch between them, giving them all their own 8oz can of whoop-ass. You can toss them into the wall, downstairs, through tables, and every which way the wind blows. It’s so satisfying to just find the different ways your fighting can interact with the world around it. The game relies on a fighting system that, on the surface, can be simple with two buttons to attack, one for block and a few others, but below the surface, it becomes more complicated as you move along. Because if you don’t work to become a master of it, you’re going to die.
Kung Fu is a catch-all for any skill, study, or discipline achieved through Chinese martial arts. It takes time, patience, and a lot of hard work to achieve higher levels of understanding of it. Sifu itself means master. The thing is, though, you can only truly become a master of something when you’re dead, and in Sifu, you’re going to be dead a lot. Both of those words feed into the mechanics and the philosophy of the game heavily. Upon death, you come back older. You’re given the chance to upgrade your character through new skills with the XP you’ve gained in your last life. With enough XP, you can unlock moves permanently as well. You’re given a lifetime of chances to continue your battle, refreshed and renewed from your momentary reprieve of death.
In other souls-like, death isn’t as forgiving. In Sifu, it’s a learning opportunity. I took every death as a moment to breathe and take a moment before heading back into battle without the frustration I was having upon my death. It was nice to have those multiple chances to think about what I was doing wrong, how I could improve, and think of a strategy to take down my opponents. Even if you carry your age to the next level, I never felt burned out by dying because I constantly felt like I was learning and improving my skills to become a better fighter. You’re going to be replaying the five levels a lot because you will learn their layouts, fighters, and shortcuts through each renewed run-through. When death is a full-on mechanic in the game, you must shake its hand rather than seek revenge against it.
With each death, you grow older as a character. Your health lowers while your strength increases. While it is a very cool system in the game, I think it drives the philosophy the developers may be trying to get the players to understand about revenge. While a game like The Last of Us 2 drives home a story about revenge home with brutality, Sifu tells it with subtlety by letting you see the effect it has on you firsthand. When you dedicate your time, your energy, and your own life to the pursuit of causing pain to another, you will lose yourself. You’ll lose yourself to that path as time wears you down into nothing but a worn gravestone. It’s an interesting way to approach the revenge tale in a more hands-off way to ask the players if it is truly worth it.
With Sifu surprising me with how much time I sunk into learning skills and practicing my approach, I’ve started to wonder if maybe this was the perfect first dip into a larger pool of souls-likes. With its sometimes forgiving nature, smooth combat, and overall joyous action-packed fighting, I think Sifu has given me the will to try more games like it a new life.